Man behind 1976 kidnapping of 26 Chowchilla children and bus driver is granted parole

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A parole board affirmed Tuesday that Frederick Woods, one of three men convicted of kidnapping a school bus full of 26 children and their driver in Chowchilla, Calif., in 1976 in an effort to coerce a $5-million ransom, will be released.

Woods, 70, was first found suitable for parole in a hearing at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo on March 25, marking the 18th time he appeared in front of the parole board, according to Terry Thornton, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Woods had previously been denied parole 17 times.

Frederick Woods.

(Associated Press)

Gov. Gavin Newsom referred Woods’ parole grant for review by the board, which occurred Tuesday. Woods’ release date was not disclosed because of safety and security reasons, Thornton said.

Woods, with accomplices Richard and James Schoenfeld, had schemed for more than a year on a kidnap for ransom plan. An appeals court ordered Richard Schoenfeld’s release in 2012; then-Gov. Jerry Brown granted release for James Schoenfeld, Richard’s brother, in 2015.

In July 1976, farmer and bus driver Ed Ray was driving a yellow school bus carrying elementary students from Dairyland Unified when he saw a white van stopped in the road. Ray slowed the bus to see if those in the van needed assistance, and three men armed with guns jumped out, commandeering the bus and driving it into a dry canal bottom, where they had left another van.

Ray and the schoolchildren were loaded into the two vans and driven for 11 hours to a quarry in Livermore, 100 miles from Chowchilla. The kidnappers forced them to climb down a ladder into a moving trailer they buried.

Ray and some of the children started stacking mattresses, ultimately managing to get out of the trailer 16 hours later. Meanwhile, the three kidnappers left and tried to contact the Chowchilla Police Department to make their ransom demand but were unable to get through because the phone lines were busy. They napped and awoke to the news of the escape, and were captured or surrendered within weeks. Ray was hailed as a hero. He died in May 2012 at age 91.

James Schoenfeld told parole officials that he was jealous of his friends who had “his-and-hers Ferraris.” Woods, who was 24 at the time of the crime, said during an earlier parole hearing that he just “got greedy,” saying in 2012 that he didn’t need the money. Woods is the son of Frederick Woods III, who owned the quarry and a 100-acre Portola Valley Estate; the Schoenfelds came from the family of a wealthy Menlo Park podiatrist.

“I’ve had empathy for the victims, which I didn’t have then,” Woods said at the March parole hearing. “I’ve had a character change since then.”

Sheila Perry, the superintendent and principal of Alview-Dairyland Union Unified School District, declined to comment on the parole decision.

Madera County Dist. Atty. Sally Moreno came out against Woods’ release in a statement after the hearing.

“It’s hard to articulate everything I’m feeling — all the suffering that he caused to those children throughout their lives, which will continue unabated; his continuing inability to conform his behavior to the rules demonstrating his own unrepentance and lack of rehabilitation; his obvious lack of understanding of the impact his acts have on others as demonstrated by the totality of his conduct in prison,” she said.

Woods broke prison rules several times, according to Moreno, who said he was caught with pornography in 2002 and had four violations for having cellphones in 2013, 2014 and twice in 2016. Woods was most recently disciplined for running businesses in the prison in 2019.

Jennifer Brown Hyde, one of the survivors opposing Woods’ parole and who now lives in Tennessee, was 9 years old during the kidnapping. She said she and her family were “disappointed in the parole board’s decision.”

“I am extremely proud of my fellow survivors, friends and family members that continued to fight till the end,” she said in a statement. “I am grateful to have the support of the Alameda County DA Jill Klinge; She has been a true champion in her support over the years.”

The three men were convicted of kidnapping with bodily harm and given life sentences. Newsom’s father, state Judge William Newsom, was on the 1980 appellate panel that reduced their life sentences to give them an opportunity at parole. William Newsom advocated for the kidnappers to be released in 2011, saying no one was seriously injured in the incident. He died in 2018.

Survivor Larry Park, who supported Woods’ release during the March parole hearing, said he believes Woods “served enough time for the crime you committed.” However, Park encouraged Woods to seek help.

“I’m concerned about the addiction you may have about money,” Park said.

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